A is for Apricot

With the apricot season under way, I thought I would give you a little virtual taste of a few ways these wonderful fruits can be enjoyed.

This year I was lucky enough to have the pick of the crop from a tree belonging to friends – they were away while their tree was full of ripe fruit!!

When I started to think about what to do with this bounty, the first thing which came to mind was apricot jam –  beautifully orange coloured, and full of the flavours of the sun!!

Whenever I make jam these days, I try to use the kind of jam sugar where you can use 500g of sugar for 1kg of fruit, which makes for a much fruitier jam.

For this apricot jam I cut the apricots in half to remove the stones, and then cut each half again into four pieces.

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Once all the apricots were cut, I mixed them with the sugar, and put them in the refrigerator to stand overnight.

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Whilst the apricots are standing, the sugar draws out the juice, and the fruit tends to hold its shape better during cooking, rather than simply turning into mush.  This time I also cracked some of the apricot stones open, and added the ‘almonds’ to the mixture, hoping they would impart some of their lovely almond flavour to the jam.  Apricot ‘almonds’ do concern small amounts of cyanide, so if you are at all concerned about this, please leave them out.

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The following morning the mixture looked like this:

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The sugar had done its work, drawing out lots of juice from the apricots.  Boiling time is only four minutes, so that the vitamins won’t get boiled to death altogether!  The sugar which I use contains the right amount of pectin, so that the jam will always set.  In France it is available under the name of Fruttina Extra, and you’ll be able to find the international websites for the company here.

Et voila!!  Apricot jam always seems to froth quite a lot, so use a large pan and keep stirring!  I potted my jam the moment the boiling time was over, in twist-off jars.  It keeps well, except for when it gets eaten!! 🙂

I still had a fair amount of apricots left, so I started to wonder what else I could prepare with them.

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Some time ago a friend told me about grilled peaches, so I thought I would try that with the apricots.  For this recipe I chose the firmest apricots I had, as they could otherwise turn to mush very quickly.  I pressed my trusted cast-iron griddle pan into action, and grilled the apricots on the pre-heated griddle, cut side down, for about 5 minutes.

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I topped each apricot with some fresh goat’s cheese, and sprinkled them with freshly ground black pepper and fresh thyme leaves.

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A final drizzle of olive oil, and I had a plate full of the most delicious appetizers.

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They were every bit as good as they look, and really quick and easy to prepare!!

Another recipe I came across during my search was Mary Berry’s apricot frangipane tart.  I followed the recipe pretty much to the letter, except for using fresh apricots where the recipe indicated tinned.  And I’ll admit it right now:  I used ready rolled pastry – time was short, as was the pastry!!  I also ground my own almonds, which accounts for the darker colour of the frangipane.

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The recipe is very straightforward and quick to make, especially if you use ready rolled pastry.

I was getting a little worried when I started to spread the frangipane mixture over the apricots – there seemed to be far too little!

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But I needn’t have worried – Mary Berry is not called the ‘Queen of Baking’ for nothing!!  After 40 minutes in the oven the tart was looking beautiful, and after a couple of hours of cooling off it tasted divine!! 🙂

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There are many more delicious recipes out there, which use apricots – what is your favourite??

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Meet the goats

Whenever I can, I stop at the Chevrerie de Combebelle, either with visiting family or friends, so they can see how the goats are kept and goat’s cheese made, or by myself, to stock up on some of their delicious cheeses.

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The goat farm was started by the parents of Anne Camelot, who runs the farm today with her husband, Heiner.  When I first visited, many years ago, the milking parlour was still in the barn next to the farmhouse, and it was all very simple and rustic.  Things moved up a notch when Anne and Heiner joined Anne’s parents:  together they built a big new stable for the goats, which included a new milking parlour.  The dairy was also given a makeover at that time.  Over time the herd was extended; today it numbers 95 goats, not including the ram and this year’s babies.

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While I’m on the subject of baby goats, be warned if you ever get to see them in the flesh – they are so incredibly cute that you will want to take one home with you right away!!  The little one above was only a few days old, but in the pen next door the others were several weeks old already, and they were having fun!

Goats, contrary to sheep, are very curious and friendly creatures.  Most of them will come and see you, say hello and allow you to stroke them between the horns!!

When I visited, the adult goats were just outside the doors to the stable, and some of them were already inside.  It was close to milking time, and they probably wanted to be relieved of the heavy load some of them were carrying in their udders.

Inside the stable, things were getting organised.  There are several gates, which can be put into place, so that the milked goats are separated from the ones which are yet to give their milk.  Here’s Anne Camelot securing one of the gates:

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And here’s one of the helpers clearing out the yet-to-be-milked goats from part of the stable:

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Once all is ready, we move into the milking parlour next door.  It’s a very simple but ingenious system.

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The goats climb up a ramp inside the stable, through a small door, and they enter into the milking parlour, on two walkways.  The walkways are just above waist height, so that attaching the milking machine and putting feed into the little troughs in front of each station is not back-breaking!  There are drawbridges in between the two rows, and if you ever get to visit (which I would highly recommend that you do) you’ll see that it is incredibly orderly and organised.

Here they come!! And as you see below, there’s always one who thinks that the grass is greener next door :)!

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Goats only have two teats on their udders – cows have four.  The milking unit has two suction cups, and there are two milking units to each of the two machines.  A goat will give approx. 2.5 litres of milk a day, being milked morning and evening.  To give you an idea of how much milk is needed to make cheese, for the Ecu, the triangular-shaped cheese almost at the centre of the very first picture in this post, 1 litre of milk is required.  So on average, a goat gives enough milk each day for 2.5 Ecus.

Once the milking is done, the goats exit through another small door, and down a ramp, into the stable.

Does this look like fun??

When the milking is finished everyone is having a well-earned rest!

IMG_9756The visit at the stables over, we headed to the dairy, where Anne Camelot welcomed us, to give us tastes of the cheeses.

IMG_0767The dairy processes all the milk twice a day.  Once the milk arrives from the milking parlour it is strained and then rennet is added to curdle the milk, which is then left to stand for the curds to form.  The curds are then ladled into individual draining baskets, which dictate the size and shape of the finished cheeses.

IMG_9736On the picture above you can see the baskets for the regular round cheeses as well as for the bouchons, small cork sized cheeses which are perfect for aperitifs or salads.

Once the cheeses have drained sufficiently, they are unmoulded and set on racks to drain further.

These fresh goats cheeses are divine!  They have a very “clean” taste, not at all reminiscent of goat.  You can eat them with honey as dessert!

The cheeses then go into the cold room for maturing and finishing.  During the early stages they have to be turned very regularly.  As the cheeses age the flavours develop and mature, and if you have a close look at the display cabinet you see fresh (1 – 2 days old), semi-fresh (1 – 2 weeks old), mature and very mature cheeses (older than 1 month).  The cheeses shrink as they age, so the very mature cheese ends up being less than half the size of the very fresh cheese.

IMG_9731A few years ago Anne added two specialities to her range:  goat yoghurt, and a cheese called Tomme de Chevre.  The Tomme is a pressed cheese, with a firm texture, which matures beautifully.  A special room was built for this type of cheese, created out of an old wine tank which was next to the dairy.

So there you have it – our visit to see the goats has reached its end, but you are welcome to come back any time you like.  The Chevrerie de Combebelle is open Tuesday to Sunday from February to the end of October, and milking usually takes place at 5.30pm.  You can contact the farm on +33 467 380 538.  The farm is located off the D20, between Villespassans and Bize Minervois; the signs are on the right approx 2.5km after leaving Villespassans.

Food, glorious food

The past few weeks have been incredible where food is concerned.  With friends who were staying in St Chinian I cooked and ate in, barbecued in my garden and on their terrace, picnicked, went to fetes and to restaurants….  With all that food you’d think that I would have put on quite some weight, but luckily for me that was not the case.  I put it down to my reduced intake of bread and other wheat based foods, but perhaps I just managed to balance calories and exercise?

Most of the meat we cooked on the BBQ was lamb, but there were some delicious pork sausages too, from Boucherie Peyras, one of the local butchers in St Chinian.

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These wonderful lamb chops were accompanied by vegetable millefeuilles, stacks of grilled aubergine, courgette and tomato slices, interspersed with goats’ cheese and basil, and drizzled with some olive oil just before serving.

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On another occasion we grilled a leg of lamb – M. Peyras had expertly boned and trimmed it, and I marinated it following a recipe from the Moro Cookbook (Spanish marinade), which uses garlic, thyme, smoked paprika and red wine vinegar.  The result was absolutely divine!

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Our friends also introduced me to Yaki Onigiri:  cooked Japanese rice is formed into triangles or balls and grilled until crispy.  They can be finished in a variety of ways: spread with sweet miso paste and dipped in sesame seeds, or glazed with soy sauce, and I am sure there are other ways too!  They were very delicious and somehow they disappeared so fast each time we made them, that I have no pictures!

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But here are some tomatoes instead – the first of the season and very sweet and tasty.  As always I’m growing many different varieties and this year I have just over 20 different kinds of tomatoes in my garden.   I haven’t  quite decided which I like best – yet.  I’m sure Tomato Pie will figure on the menu again very soon.

For dessert I had made a raspberry and chocolate tart, and my friend Janet had prepared flan.  The flan had the most beautiful silky texture and there was only one little piece left over at the end of the meal.  The raspberry and chocolate tart was not bad either, but might be better suited for when the weather is a little cooler (spring or autumn).   I froze a lot of raspberries this year, so I’ll be able to make it again, and the texture and calories will be lovely as the days get shorter :-)!

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All of the restaurants we went to as a group were great! We went to the Salin in Gruissan again, for another visit, and this time had dinner at Cambuse du Saunier afterwards.  The food was very fresh and tasty.   Service started off very good but deteriorated somewhat as the restaurant got very busy.  When night fell we were attacked by swarms of mosquitoes, despite the repellent we had all put on.  So it’s a great place to eat at, but go for lunch!

Our starters were prawns and oysters, a pate of john dory, fresh crab, and mussels.  For main course there were different kinds of fish and chicken, both baked in salt crust, and a seafood cassoulet.  Desserts were pretty good too, but by then I’d put the camera away.

A total change from the rustic simplicity at Gruissan was Restaurant Le Parc in Carcassonne.   Franck Putelat, the chef, has been awarded two stars in the Michelin Guide, and the food and surroundings are just what you would expect.

The meal started with an Amuse Bouche of Gazpacho, accompanied by a platter of various nibbles:  thin cheese straws (one lot dipped in squid ink, the other in parmesan butter), radishes (buttered again) with summer truffle,  a macaroon filled with foie gras, and a biscuit topped with half a cherry tomato and a chorizo crisp.  Fantastic flavours and gorgeous presentation!

A second Mise en Bouche was served in a double walled glass – very simple and yet refined – a salad of fresh peas and seafood, topped with crispy garlic and onion slivers.

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The “real” starter came up next.  A most gorgeous looking confection made from potatoes for the crispy rings and the cannelloni wrap.  The cannelloni were filled with fresh sheep’s cheese, and the plate generously decorated with shavings of summer truffle – oh what a feast!!

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The next course was a soufflee of haddock, served with aioli and a selection of perfectly cooked vegetables, along with some crab claw meat and a langoustine sauce.

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Just when you think it can’t get much better along comes the next course:  breast of duckling, cooked at low temperature and accompanied by a stuffed courgette flower, and a condiment made with kumquat – Heaven!

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The cheese course was beautifully presented: Cabretou de Bethmale cheese, served with the thinnest slices of melba toast imaginable, and a melon chutney made with Banyuls vinegar.

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Dessert was quite simply spectacular, even on looks alone!  But the taste was pretty spectacular too:  cherries cooked in red currant juice, accompanied by elderflower sorbet; the biscuit tube was filled with a yoghurt emulsion and the whole topped by a cherry meringue disc.  And all the flavours complemented each other beautifully.

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Of course there was coffee at the end, and some more small sweets, and we were probably the last table to leave the restaurant.  The terrace is great to sit out on, and the dining room is very stylish and air-conditioned, for when it’s too hot outside.  The whole meal was accompanied by beautiful wines, all local to the area, and expertly chosen by the wine waiter.

The children had their own menu, less elaborate and with fewer courses, but none the less expertly prepared and beautifully presented.  And of course we went for a walk around the castle at Carcassonne afterwards to get rid of some of the calories :-)!

The last meal I’ll tempt you with in this post was at La Cave Saint Martin in Roquebrun.  This is a wine bar/restaurant with a terrace overlooking the river, and it specialises in tapas.  Since there was a crowd of us we ordered a number of different dishes and just passed them round to share.  All of the food was delicious and the service very friendly and relaxed, but efficient all the same.  The peach and tomato salad with basil was outstanding, and a fantastic idea for a summer salad; the pesto ravioli were bursting with basil flavour.  And then the peach crumble…  If you’re in the area and enjoy desserts then that is an absolute must!

If you’ve gotten this far without the slightest hunger pang then you deserve a medal!  And if you want to visit any of the restaurants, please be sure to reserve your table to avoid disappointment.  You can always tell them you saw it on the midihideaways blog 🙂

Carcassonne and Cassoulet

It’s been some time since I’ve been to La Cité in Carcassonne, I probably got a bit “Carcassonned-out” during the first few years, visiting with most of family and friends who came to stay.  So when I took family back to the airport at Carcassonne I decided to give it another go.  It was as beautiful as ever, and as you can see from the pictures the skies had that bright blue quality which is almost unreal.

The car park at the top, nearest the Porte Narbonnaise, appeared to be closed for works, but I’d managed to park further down the road, just across from this gorgeous timber-framed building, and the stroll up the hill just makes the ramparts that more impressive.  It was about 10.30am and the crowds were thronging already – it was French half term.

A little history about Carcassonne: the current fortress was built over an earlier Roman building and was besieged by Simon de Montfort during the Cathar crusades, and eventually taken in 1209.  That was because the Viscount of Toulouse, Raymond de Trencavel, was sheltering Cathars and refused to hand them over – something had to be done about that!.  The “new town” below La Cité was re-built as a bastide on the orders of Saint Louis in 1247, and then burnt down again by the black prince in 1355.  The fortress was a stronghold along the Franco-Spanish border until the treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659, when it lost its importance.  Economically, the chief commerce of Carcassonne was for centuries the production of woollen cloth. That market collapsed around 1780, but economic life of the town got a boost during the 19th century with new industries and wine growing.

Back to present day Carcassonne though.  Once inside La Cité I took the street up to the Chateau Comtal and the inner ramparts.  I’d been told that the visit of the Chateau included access to the top of the walls now, but once inside the courtyard I quickly abandoned the idea – the queues were just too long.  I will go back some time when it’s not so busy to try that experience.

Instead I took the street to the left of the Chateau, and wandered down to the Porte d’Aude which gives access to the moat between the two rings of fortification.  Today the moat is all flat and dry 😉 and a great way to experience the sheer size of the fortifications.  There are also great views out over the Aude river and the Bastide St Louis.

Close to the Basilica Saint Nazaire there was another way into La Cité which might have been added later for the comfort of the more modern inhabitants – but I may be wrong.

Walking through the narrow streets I came to a square (Place Marcou) which was lined with restaurants pretty much all round, a bit like the food court you would find in a shopping mall, only outdoors and with a medieval feel to it.  I decided on La Bonne Demeure, mostly because it had tables in the sun and had an OK lunch.  I guess pretty much all the restaurants in Carcassonne will be serving average food, there’s just too much temptation to economise, too many customers and only so much in the way of competition.  Don’t be put off though, the food and service were prefectly OK, and I’m sure there are exceptions.  I’m going to look for those on my next visit.  And if you visit Carcassonne, don’t forget the “new” town below La Cité – it’s well worth a visit and almost as old!  What am I writing – if you visit Carcassonne?  No, it should be when you visit Carcassonne!!

Cassoulet is one of those dishes which has a long tradition in the area, and Castelnaudary claims the authentic recipe along with a host of other towns and villages.  When it comes to it though authenticity is not my yardstick – I rate a cassoulet by the way I enjoy it, and there’s one which I’ve enjoyed over and over:  Brigitte’s at the Auberge de l’Ecole in Saint Jean de Minervois.

I went with a group of people not long ago, and Brigitte had prepared a simple menu around the cassoulet for us all.  A simple salad of mixed leaves and goats cheese with pesto to start with, and Dame Blanche for dessert – ice cream with chocolate sauce.  For the couple of non-meat eaters in our group she’d prepared some salmon filet with a potato cake, but the cassoulet was just divine, brought to the table bubbling and fragrant!  Perhaps one of these days I may be able to persuade Brigitte to teach me how to make her version of Cassoulet…?

And here’s the gallery of all pictures in this post along with a lot which I’ve not inserted between the text – hope you enjoy this visit!

Late summer food – Tomato Pie

Last week I teased some of you on facebook with a picture of a Tomato Pie – since the summer is not yet over I would like to share the story behind that delicious looking picture.  Let me tell you  now, it tastes every bit as good as it looks!!  The recipe comes from Florence, a friend from North Carolina, who first cooked it for me last year.  When Florence came back to St Chinian this year and asked me for dinner, I persuaded her to make tomato pie again.

The following week I got together again with Florence for a cooking lesson in how to prepare this delicious dish from the South.  I’d prepared a basic shortcrust pastry, to which I added a couple of tablespoons of freshly grated parmesan cheese.  Rolled out thinly, lined a flan tin and pre-cooked it.  This is not absolutely necessary: if you don’t have the time you don’t have to pre-bake your pie shell (or even make your own pastry), but I prefer it to have that little extra crunch.  Here are the remaining ingredients (almost all of them anyhow):

A tablespoon of Dijon mustard is spread in the bottom of the pie shell, which is then filled with thickly sliced tomatoes.  Thickly means about 2cm thick, and you use your thumbs to remove the seeds and watery stuff from the tomatoes.  If there are gaps, cut a slice into pieces and fit them in where necessary.  Sprinkle some chopped shallots over the tomatoes, a little salt and pepper, then sprinkle over some fresh basil, torn or chopped.

Spread grated cheese evenly over the whole thing; I used Comte, but you can use Cheddar, Gruyère or Cantal or a mixture.

Now comes the final step – mix some home-made mayonnaise (or use good store-bought) with some grated parmesan and spread evenly over the grated cheese.  A little tricky, but if you drop blobs of the mix onto the cheese and use a rubber spatula to spread it, you’ll achieve a good result.

Bake in a pre-heated oven at 190 celsius for 20 minutes and you’ll end up with a golden looking tart with a slightly puffed top, and a delicious smell in your kitchen.

Leave it to stand for as long as you can resist it (about 20 minutes?) and serve warm.  What did we have with it?  I don’t think anything, except for some very nice wine, but I imagine that a green salad would go extremely well with it.  The key to success for this dish is to use only the sweetest, ripe tomatoes at their peak.  Search for them – it’s worth it.  If necessary bribe a gardening neighbour to give you some of his crop.  Don’t bother making it in the winter or with supermarket tomatoes, you’ll only be wondering what the fuss is all about!  And the other thing to watch for is not to over cook the pie.  The idea is for the tomatoes to be warmed through, but not cooked, so they retain their fresh taste.  Enjoy!

A week of food!

This week has been wonderful as culinary experiences go!  At the end of last week friends arrived for their annual holiday in St Chinian, and we started as we meant to go on, with a great BBQ on Sunday evening at their place (sausages, lamb chops, grilled courgettes and aubergines).   A few days later I visited Domaine Gayda near Limoux to celebrate the birthday of another friend.  The sunflower fields along the way were beautiful, lifting the spirits!

Domaine Gayda is a beautiful property, at the same time winery and restaurant, and if you’re in the area you should stop by for a wine tasting or a meal or both!  I was particularly taken with their Sauvignon Blanc, which was served with lunch and took home a case.  The lunch menu is three courses, and there are two choices per course; wine and coffee are included and the views from the terrace are spectacular!  For starters I chose the tartare of tuna fish with nori which was very good!  Some of my dining companions opted for skewered quail, which smelled divine.  For main course I stayed with Fish, a beautiful piece of pan-fried salmon with smashed potatoes and bean sprouts.  A couple of fellow diners had chosen the roasted pork filet, but I wasn’t fast enough with my camera to capture it – I can assure you though that it was very good and looked it too!  The choices for dessert were apricot soup or chocolate tart.  Can you guess which one I had?

Another BBQ in my garden followed – I decided to make the hamburgers which we’d tried out for our last cooking get-together, accompanied by courgettes marinated in lemon juice with garlic and olive oil, grilled courgettes and grilled potatoes and buttered green beans.  And just in case that wasn’t enough, I’d made an apricot tart for dessert.  My friend Janet has a wonderful recipe for stuffed courgette flowers, and since there were quite a few flowers on my courgette plants we prepared that too!

For the recipe only the male courgette flowers are used and the fresher they are the easier they are to handle. Once they are cleaned, the stamen are removed from each flower, being careful not to tear the flowers open. The filling is made with very fresh goats cheese, roasted pine nuts and chives, seasoned very lightly, and then stuffed into the flowers. I guess a piping bag with a wide nozzle might make this easier, but all we had to hand was a teaspoon. Just before grilling the flowers are drizzled with a little olive oil, and they don’t take very long, perhaps 3 minutes?

Janet had also prepared some parcels of sweet onions, one seasoned simply with pepper, the other with Piment d’Espelette, which cooked for a long time and were beautifully tender.  The left-over goats cheese filling went very well with the smaller of the grilled potatoes.

The sun had started to set by the time we were ready for the apricot tart, which had all the promise of summer, juicy golden fruit and a hint of sweetness from the base.